Activists from authoritarian countries have some advice for Americans on preserving democracy

Constitutional lawyer is optimistic so far with resistance to Trump administration.

President Donald Trump welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House on May 16, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Donald Trump welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House on May 16, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

A new book collects the writings of pro-democracy agitators from countries like Turkey, Russia, and Chile, who offer advice on the best ways to prevent President Donald Trump from weakening U.S. democratic institutions.

Co-edited by David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the essays and articles in the book, Rules for Resistance: Advice from Around the Globe for the Agency of Trump, emphasize the importance of citizens staying mobilized. Prominent contributors to the book include Chilean-American poet and playwright Ariel Dorfman, South African press freedom activist Nic Dawes, Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, Hungarian human rights activist Miklós Haraszti, and Turkish political scientist N. Turkuler Isiksel.

Isiksel, in her essay, writes “it can happen here” as she and her compatriots in Turkey have “watched an illiberal populist leader commandeer every lever of power.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has succeeded in his power grab by “dismantling constitutional safeguards and intimidating society into submission,” she explains.

In the book’s introduction, Cole quotes the warning of renowned federal judge Learned Hand, who wrote: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.”

Cole, who also teaches constitutional law at Georgetown University, warns that “the road to repression is all too open” in the United States if citizens do not mobilize and remain vigilant.

Cole spoke with ThinkProgress about his reasons for compiling the essays and articles that appear in Rules for Resistance — and about how democratic institutions in the United States are holding up under Trump’s presidency.

Which of the essays and articles in the book most spoke to you about the current Trump era here in the United States?

They all spoke to me, because the unifying feature is that these are writers who have lived in countries where one or another form of autocratic rule has been put in place, either through a populist movement or through other means.

What inspired you to put together this collection of essays by writers from around the world?

The idea was, here’s somebody who came to office threatening to violate a wide range of basic constitutional norms and principles. Other countries have dealt with this in the past. Maybe we can learn something from them. It’s not in any way to draw a direct analogy, but simply to say that we may have lessons to learn from other parts of the world. And I think we already have. The title of the book is Rules for Resistance, and the principal lesson is that it’s absolutely critical for citizens and important institutions of civil society to play a checking role on individuals who take power, and who appear to be unwilling or uninterested in following basic principles of the rule of law.

So far, how would you assess the effectiveness of the resistance to the Trump administration?

We’ve seen a mobilization by citizens, by nonprofit organizations, in the academy, in the media, in the professions. It’s been a remarkable four months. To me, the resistance that we have seen thus far is an object lesson in the value and importance of the very institutions that many of the authors in our volume talked about. Many of them talk about the press. They talk about the civil society sector. They talk about the informal institutions that are critical in checking power where they face unified power. That’s what we’ve seen here since the November election.

CREDIT: The New Press
CREDIT: The New Press

Do you think our institutions are strong enough to withstand someone like Trump?

Well, only time will tell. But I’m optimistic on that front. I think we have probably the most robust civil society in the world. And we also have a critical First Amendment protection for civil society. The protection of the right to associate, the right to speak, the right to petition government. Those are all critically important rights that are widely accepted and ensure that these institutions — academic institutions, nonprofits institutions, religious institutions, the press — play their appropriate role in checking the president. Thus far, President Trump has been unable to accomplish most of what he promised. That’s in large part because of the tremendous resistance that he has seen across the country.

You wrote your introduction to the book in March. Has anything changed that has surprised you since you wrote it?

I continue to be encouraged by the unprecedented level of citizen engagement in defense of liberty. That’s what I talk about in the introduction of the book. People are joining groups like ours, the ACLU, forming their own groups, engaging in political action — sort of Democracy 101 — in defense of the values that President Trump threatens. Because of that engagement, President Trump has been unable to accomplish much of what he promised. You see it in judicial decisions, which have invalidated his immigration travel ban executive orders. But you also see it in his backing off of measures that would have posed serious constitutional challenges.

What are the most important measures that Trump has backed away from?

An example is the religious liberty executive order. A version of the religious liberty executive order was leaked early in his administration. And organizations threatened to sue and challenge its constitutionality. It identified four particular religious view and would have protected people with those view from having to follow various federal laws. Those views were that life begins at conception, that marriage is only between a man and a woman, that sex is determined at birth, and that people should not have sexual relations outside of marriage. Trump subsequently boasted that he was going to free up churches to allow them to endorse candidates in political campaigns. We and others were ready to challenge him if he did that. Ultimately, he issued an executive order that did none of that, that backed off of those threats and ratified the status quo. It was essentially a photo op that sought to appeal to his base but actually didn’t provide any particular protections to religious groups that don’t already have.

How do you explain the failed efforts to fulfill many of Trump’s other campaign promises, including the repeal of Obamacare?

The failed — thus far anyway — effort to repeal Obamacare was defeated by a combination of citizen engagement at town halls and people calling their congresspeople to express their concerns. Congress was overwhelmingly receiving calls about maintaining Obamacare, not overturning it. Thus far, he hasn’t been able to achieve that signature promise of his campaign. And that’s in no small measure because of citizen opposition. He’s threatened the press, but he hasn’t been able to take action against the press. He has not reintroduced torture, as he said it would be a good idea to do during the campaign. He did seek to impose a Muslim travel ban, but it has been blocked in the courts. He did seek to punish cities that refused to enforce federal immigration law, as is their constitutional right, but that, too, was blocked in the courts.

It’s only been slightly more than four months, but so far, how would you grade Trump’s presidency?

What you see is a deeply frustrated president, mired in crisis and controversy and scandal, and facing the very real checks that a democracy provides when citizens stand up for their basic liberties.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.